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Samuel Phelps

Samuel Phelps (born Feb. 13, 1804, Plymouth Dock (now Devonport), Plymouth, Devon, died Nov. 6, 1878, Anson’s Farm, Coopersale, near Epping, Essex) was an English actor.

Phelps made his début as Shylock in London at the Haymarket Theatre in 1837 and appeared under the management of William Charles Macready at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, who recognized Phelps as a potential rival and gave him little opportunity to display his talents, although Phelps did gain popularity in the roles of Captain Channel in Douglas William Jerrold's melodrama The Prisoner of War (1842), and of Lord Tresham in Robert Browning's A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (1843).

It was not until the abolition of the Patent monopoly on theatrical production that Phelps was able to take over the management of the then-unfashionable Sadler's Wells Theatre and revolutionize the production of Shakespeare's plays by restoring Shakespearean performances to the original text of the first folio and away from the adaptations by Colley Cibber, Nahum Tate and David Garrick that had been favored by the theatre-going public since the Restoration. Phelps staged all but four of Shakespeare's plays at Sadler's Wells, some of which (like The Winter's Tale and Measure for Measure) hadn't been performed since their premieres at the Globe Theatre.

Samuel Phelps (actor).jpg

Phelps' most frequently performed role was Hamlet, but he counted Macbeth, Wolsey, Leontes, and Bottom among his greatest achievements. He was generally considered the finest King Lear of his generation, returning to Shakespeare's version, which had been replaced on stage for over a hundred and fifty years by Tate's happy ending adaptation The History of King Lear, and staging the first production of the original version since the Restoration in 1845. Bell's Weekly Messenger wrote "The majesty, as well as the paternal tenderness of Lear, is preserved throughout; the grief, despair, and madness are kingly; and the business which the action inspires is heightened by the consciousness of the greatness of the mind that is suffering."

Phelps other great creation was his Falstaff, which the German publication Gesammelte Werke called his finest role. He first played Shakespeare's fat knight in Henry IV, Part I in 1846. While not suited for the sensuality typically associated with the role, Phelps relied on his intelligence and aristocratic suaveness in his interpretation which he altered slightly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, portraying a gentlemanly knight who observed the standards of decorum regardless of the vulgarity of his current surroundings. His production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the first regular revival of that play since the seventeenth century, emphasized spectacle in a way that set the pattern for many future productions. In 1864, as part of the celebrations of Shakespeare's tricentennial, he played the title role in Cymbeline at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; Helen Faucit was Imogen.

Sadly, Phelps' skills declined in old age so that critics no longer cared for his work in tragic plays, approving only his performances in comic roles like Falstaff and Bottom. But in his prime, he was the most versatile actor of his generation. A definitive biography, Samuel Phelps & the Sadler's Wells Theatre, was written by Shirley S. Allen in 1971.

References

  • Samuel Phelps and Sadler's Wells Theatre Shirley S. Allen (Wesleyan, 1971) ISBN 0819540293
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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SAMUEL PHELPS (1804-1878), English actor and manager, was born at Devonport on the 13th of February 1804. He was early thrown upon his own resources, and worked in various newspaper offices. Shortly after his marriage in 1826 to Sarah Cooper (d. 1867), he accepted a theatrical engagement in the York circuit at eighteen shillings a week, and afterwards appeared in south of England towns in prominent tragic roles, attracting sufficient attention to be spoken of as a rival to Kean. He made his first London appearance on the 28th of August 1837 as Shylock at the Haymarket. After a short season there he was with Macready for about six years at Covent Garden, the Haymarket and Drury Lane successively. In 1844 he became co-lessee of Sadler's Wells Theatre with Thomas L. Greenwood and Mrs Mary Amelia Warner (1804-1854). Greenwood supplied the business capacity, Phelps was the theatrical manager, and Mrs Warner leading lady. In this position Phelps remained for twenty years, during which time he raised the Sadler's Wells house to an important position, and himself appeared in a very extensive and varied repertory. Thirty-four of Shakespeare's plays were presented there under his direction, with great educational effect, both on public and players. In 1861 Greenwood retired from the partnership, and Phelps, unable to cope with the business of management, retired from it in the following year. For the next fifteen years he acted under various managements, achieving considerable success in some of Halliday's dramatic versions of Scott's novels, such as The Fortunes of Nigel and Ivanhoe. His last appearance was in 1878 as Wolsey in Henry VIII., and he died on the 6th of November 1878. He was a sound and capable actor, rather than one of any marked genius; and, in spite of his predilection for tragedy, was most successful in such characters of comedy as called for dry humour. Perhaps Sir Pertinax Macsycophant in Charles Macklin's The Man of the World was his finest impersonation. He published an annotated edition of Shakespeare's plays (2 vols., 1852-1854).


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